A Mythical Medical Monster


From The New York Times (September 1, 1993)

by Douglas Coupland

My father is that most ambiguous of figures in the current U.S. political discourse - a Canadian physician. Depending on one's political perspective, he may be envisioned either as Marcus Welby brushing a tobacco mote from a glen-plaid jacket or as Lenin's zombie reincarnate, calculating the demise of MetLife in a candle-lit schloss amid the alps of British Columbia.

Neither perception is, of course, true. Dad, sixtysomething, is Dad. He is a general practitioner of the old school, mending broken femurs, delivering triplets and dealing with neighbors whose thumbs have been slammed in door jambs and swollen to the size of golf balls. (The remedy: a needle heated over a Bunsen flame, pierced into the thumbnail's center, releasing a geyser of blood and a heavenly sigh from the sufferer.)

Socialized medicine. I know. The words tingle dangerously on the tongue, conjuring visions of McCarthy exhumed and Reds in the beds, as well as nostalgia for the carefree, ideologically clear-cut world of 1987. Now that the Canadian system of universal medical coverage is often touted as a model for overhauling the unwieldy U.S. system, it has set off a flurry of Canada-bashing.

Opponents of the Canadian plan point to (mythical) dolly loads of cardiac cases pleading for angiograms while callous bureaucrats plump up the pillows of Ceaucescu descendants and chat about the luncheon bistro du jour. Such claims are patently silly; according to a 1991 survey by Statistics Canada, 95 percent of all Canadians reported receiving the care they needed within 24 hours.

The fact is that nobody goes without medical care in Canada. The system works well and is abused only to a piffling degree. Canadians are, for the most part, happy and proud of their health care; it is a strong component of their national identity. According to a poll taken this year, only 3 percent of Canadians said they would prefer a health care system like that in the U.S. Of course, as with most medical systems, it's going through a few problems at the moment stemming from the effects of an aging population. But the problems aren't anything that won't be worked out.

I mention all of this only to help quell the irrational fears of Canadianization popping up in the U.S. media. It's irrational, like being afraid of Mr. Beazly, your high school English teacher. Anyway, I doubt the American medical system is going to fully Canadianize - it's far too big an industry to change too radically.

The next time you hear somebody slag the Canadian system, listen with a grain of salt. Phone a few average Canadians at random and ask them what they think.